Theresa May Should Worry More About Her Left Than Her Right

The Conservative Party conference kicked off this week with an inevitable focus on Brexit and the already tired cliché of our new Prime Minister that ‘Brexit Means Brexit’. In her opening address Theresa May made it clear that she intends to start the process sooner rather than later, March being the deadline for triggering Article 50. This, and the Great Repeal Bill, will no doubt go down well with many of the more ardent Brexiteers who should, for the sake of unity, try not to appear too smug during the next few days. However, values are as much at stake at this conference as any particular policy issue.

Theresa May has pitched her ideological tent in a ‘new centre ground’. Her initial pitch to voters was that she wants to fight injustice and she want to create an upwardly mobile meritocratic society. To that end the recent decision over disabled welfare tests is welcome and encouraging; the centre ground is after all where elections are won (deviation from which cost the Conservatives three elections). The Prime Minister may even prove to be a better One Nation Conservative than Cameron if she manages to make her vision a reality.

So far this has mostly been rhetoric but very little action, so it is understandable that some of the more progressive Conservative elements are still sceptical about her intentions, particularly after the promotion of new grammar schools was announced completely out of the blue. It is Brexit that is still going to be the key point that will define May’s premiership and there is a worry that she may give in too easily to the hard right of her own party in the quest for unity and public support.

This fine balancing act between the different wings of the party will mean that she may end up alienating her left rather than her right wing. With a government that only has a majority of 12, this could be disastrous.

The noise and the momentum is with the Brexiteers

Already Nick Boles, a key moderniser, has claimed he will come out ‘all guns blazing’ if there is any deviation from a more progressive agenda. The veteran Tory wet Ken Clarke’s memoires may also make for uncomfortable reading for some of those on the right. Clarke and other key Remainers such as Nicky Morgan, George Osborne and Anna Soubry may also be spoiling for a fight when it comes to voting on key issues in Theresa May’s new programme, above all Brexit.

Many of these fears over the future direction of the party may arise from the fact that the prime minister has surrounded herself with so many Cabinet Ministers on the right of the party. It is hard to take progressive wishes entirely seriously when socially-conservative figures such as Liam Fox, Priti Patel, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and even the Chancellor Phillip Hammond occupy prominent positions within the party and government. Hammond aside, these other figures along with David Davis and to a lesser extent Boris Johnson are all pushing forcefully for a ‘Hard Brexit’ where Britain will leave the single market and have only limited access in exchange for greater control over freedom of movement and immigration.

Theresa May cannot give in to this wing if she hopes to keep the Remainers on side, who actually made up a majority of declared Conservative MP’s before the referendum. The noise and the momentum is with the Brexiteers. It would be very easy for Theresa May to give up some of her more liberal pronouncements in order to appease them. The party and the nation will have to watch and wait to see what happens but if she truly wants to take advantage of the chaos in the Labour Party, it will mean pitching her message to soft Lab and Lib Dem voters as much as former Conservatives who have moved to UKIP.

the Conservatives appear united, but it is unlikely that this will remain the case for four more years

A party conference is a great opportunity to promote party unity and show the nation that the government is mature and capable of acting in the people’s interest. There are many in the Conservative Party who may have watched with glee the pandemonium going on in Liverpool at Labour’s annual conference, forgetting the simmering tensions that have already been outlined in their own tribe.

We still have an electoral system that forces parties to become ‘big tents’, so these problems will not abate and may even get worse for both main parties. At the moment the Conservatives appear united, but it is unlikely that this will remain the case for four more years, particularly after so much bad blood was shed during the referendum campaign.

Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May is probably the least divisive figure the Tory party has had for a while and has a lot of good will from both wings of the party. This could mean that if anyone is going to make a success of keeping the party together, she can. She just has to remember not to be blind in the left eye, the progressives may not be as loud or as forceful but they command more support than she realises. Known for her caution, a Hard Brexit may seem the safest option for the Prime Minister, but it actually may lead to more problems than it solves.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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